- Learie Constantine and Race Relations in Britain and the Empire by Jeffrey Hill
In this intellectual biography of the West Indian cricketer and politician Learie Constantine, Jeffrey Hill foregrounds race and race relations as the foundation of late imperial British society. The book captures Constantine's fascinating journey from his humble beginning as the descendent of African slaves in the West Indies to being knighted in a climate of racial inequality and hostility. Hill places Constantine at the center of the race problem arising out of the increasing settlement of black imperial subjects in postwar Britain. He explores how Constantine experienced racial discrimination as a cricketer and a welfare officer in [End Page 176] the 1930s and '40s and later weighed in significantly on assimilation and multiculturalism debates as the high commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago in London and member of the Race Relations Board in the 1960s. His approach to Constantine as a transatlantic personage produced by imperial relationships between Britain and the Caribbean Islands sheds new light on how perceptive the cricketer was toward racial and identity politics.
Hill begins with an overview of Constantine's family background and development as a cricketer. A study of the friendship and early careers of the noted Marxist critic C. L. R. James and Constantine regarding how they fulfilled two aspirations of blacks—James as a revolutionary and Constantine as a respected professional—aptly sums up the life-world of Afro-Caribbean people at the turn of the twentieth century. The focus on how Constantine carved a niche for himself within the white aesthetic of cricket, especially how his fielding contradicted the construction of black physicality as slothful and lacking in work ethic, brings out the imbrication of race in cricket. Hill's treatment of the role of colonialism in identity politics could have been more nuanced had it taken into account the changing connotations of biological and cultural blackness in greater detail.
Hill then follows up on his earlier book on the social history of Nelson, a small industrial town in Yorkshire where Constantine lived and played club cricket as a professional in the 1930s. He shows how central the cricketer was to the town's effort of building a civic identity around the game. The relative absence of class hierarchy in Nelson and greater racial tolerance in comparison to similar towns in the north of England had helped the Constantine family to settle in without much problem. Hill makes some interesting observations about the domestication of Constantine and the respect shown to him by local white people. His days were not without incidents of racial aggression, but it was in the 1940s, after he moved out of Nelson, that Constantine's awareness of racism became more acute, and politics seeped into his writings on cricket.
The following chapters demonstrate Hill's sharp reading of previous biographies of Constantine, with a notable exception of the award-winning biography by Harry Pearson that came out before this book. Hill's take on Constantine is understandably different from regular biographies in its focus on historical themes. The cricketer's hybrid persona of the "black Englishman" (with full cognizance of his remark in later life that he was still a West Indian) brings to the fore various aspects of black immigrant life in Britain. The chapter on his work as a welfare officer for West Indian workers in Liverpool, woven into the history of wartime immigrant labor, offers fascinating insights into problems caused by American soldiers in dance bars, mixed-race marriages, race integration programs, and so on. Thereafter, the book charts Constantine's political career, exploring his ideas about what caused racial inequality, opposition to white captaincy for the West Indian national team, friendship and falling out with Trinidad's first prime pinister and historian Eric Williams, criticism of apartheid, work with the Race Relations Board in England, and his policy of effecting change by lobbying through powerful contacts. Hill carefully suggests that Constantine never explicitly pledged loyalty to any political party, preferring...